6 earth expressions for anyone who loves Planet Earth
The word earth dates back to Old English, and its earliest meanings haven’t changed much over the course of centuries; earth still refers to the planet on which we live, and soil. If the primary meanings haven’t changed, then what other senses and nuances have been added and lost over the years?
Earth to earth
Human flesh was also known as earth in Old English; this use survives chiefly in (or in allusion to) a phrase from the funeral service in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer: earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. This phrase ultimately refers to Genesis 3:19, after Adam and Eve are told to leave the Garden of Eden:
By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.
In some translations, ground and dust here are replaced with earth. The idea of the material of the human body actually being made of earth is now theologically considered figurative, though this was not the case until the modern period.
To run to earth
To run someone or something to earth is to find them or it after a long search. This sense comes from hunting terminology, where it described chasing a hunted animal to an earth, where the noun has the sense ‘an animal’s dwelling or hiding place’, especially that of a fox.
To go to earth
To go to earth follows a similar pattern: it was used of a hunted animal to mean ‘to hide in an earth’, and was later also used figuratively for ‘to go into hiding, to lie low’. This sense was given extra popularity by Mary Webb’s bestselling 1917 rural novel Gone to Earth, one of the novels parodied by Stella Gibbons’ 1932 novel Cold Comfort Farm.
To feel the earth move
We apparently have Ernest Hemingway to thank for this metaphor for sexual ecstasy; the earliest example of this phrase and its variants in the current OED entry for earth comes from his 1940 novel For Whom the Bell Tolls: “Did thee feel the earth move?” “Yes. As I died. Put thy arm around me, please.” (Incidentally, died here refers to having had an orgasm; this sense of die dates as far back as Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.)
Down to earth
This expression is perhaps surprisingly recent; the earliest example in the current OED entry of down to earth meaning ‘back to reality’ comes from Very Good, Jeeves, a 1930 collection of short stories by P.G. Wodehouse: ‘I had for some little time been living, as it were, in another world. I now came down to earth with a bang.’ Down to earth or down-to-earth is also common as an adjective, ‘with no illusions or pretensions; practical and realistic’.
Ten years after mankind landed on the moon, the first use of Earth to [someone] was identified. It’s imitative of a ground controller attempting to contact a spacecraft, and implies that ‘the person addressed is speaking or behaving in an abstracted manner, or is out of touch with reality’. The earliest use in the current OED entry comes from a Campus Slang publication, suggesting that it was already in common spoken use in some quarters.